Mount Everest, an icon in our collective imagination, has historically been a male-dominated arena of competition and endurance. These women are changing that.
BY FLORENCE DERRICK
The world’s highest peak sits on the crest of the Great Himalayas, its icy summit jutting 29,032 feet skyward and marking the border between Nepal and Tibet. Dubbed Chomolungma in Tibetan—meaning Goddess Mother of the World—Mount Everest is a place steeped in mythology, where trepidation battles ambition and awesome beauty meets the limits of mankind. Quite literally: of the 5,788 people to have summited Everest since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary raised their flags there in 1953, just 653—around 8 percent—of climbers have been women.
But a growing crop of new women-only treks, including some led by record-breaking female climbers, is redressing the balance.
The Adventure People’s Women’s Everest Base Camp Trek (which journeys over 14 days through Indigenous Sherpa towns like the well-visited Namche Bazaar, to the high-altitude hiking trails leading to Everest Base Camp) offers women travelers a safe space in which to tick off a bucket-list adventure. Although no formal climbing experience or equipment is required, guests need a high level of fitness and trekking poles to complete up to six hours of trekking per day, starting from Lukla, crossing suspension bridges over the rushing Dudh Koshi River and edging up steep rocky inclines—stopping at tea houses and the famous Tengboche Monastery on the way. Most of the lodges en route are run by local Sherpas, and provide opportunities for cultural exchange between the women hosting and doing the trek.
The trip is also dedicated to creating opportunities for women on the ground: Run in partnership with Icicles Adventure Treks, a local, female-run trekking company owned by Nepali entrepreneur Indira Bhatta, the tour employs local Nepali women as trekking guides and funds training for other local women to train as guides—a job that is rarely held by Nepalese women. Out of an estimated 22,000 mountain guides in the country, only around 886 are female.
Yet even with those limited numbers, female-only treks with female guides are growing among western adventure tour companies operating in Nepal: Wild Women Expeditions, Himalayas Challenge, Global Adventures and Take On Nepal all run similar women-only treks from Kathmandu to Base Camp, with female mountain guides. While most Nepalese trekking outfits still prioritize male porters, there are exceptions: 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking has trained some 2,000 female porters and guides in Nepal since it launched in 1994.
“There are women in Nepal coming out of their home in search of opportunities,” says Bhatta. “In the adventure sector they are far behind compared to men, and 95 percent of people in the country don’t know about this profession. I want women to choose mountain guiding to improve the living standards of their whole family and help them lead a dignified life.”
A business model like this can effect change on the mountain for women travelers as well. “When I was at Base Camp, if there were 20 female climbers, there must have been 2,000 men,” says Seattle-based Sophia Danenberg, who in 2006 became the first Black woman to summit Everest. “In mountaineering, generally, there aren’t many women. But there are so few women on Everest, and it’s not just the climbers. Almost all the Sherpas, guides, cooks, and staff are men. It’s like being in a small town with almost no women and if you’re climbing, you’re there for months. This macho climbing culture can be intimidating for women.”
For Danenberg, climbing with women creates a different dynamic. When Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei became the first woman to summit Everest in 1975, she did so on an all-women team. Zambian-born mountaineer Saray Khumalo agrees that a culture shift is needed.
“The history of mountain climbing is really about white, privileged men with money, and it has to change,” she says. “We need to get to the level where I don’t turn heads just for being on the mountain.”
Travel to Nepal and Mount Everest was off limits during the 2020 climbing season due to the pandemic, but mountaineers trickled into Base Camp come spring, for the annual mid-May summit attempt. Kathmandu remains in and out of lockdowns, but U.S. travelers can enter Nepal with proof of a negative COVID-19 test, and although all arrivals must quarantine before beginning their Base Camp ascent, more trekking permits have been given out for the 2021 season so far than any other year. However, over 100 COVID cases at Base Camp since the climbing season began are adding to the strain on Kathmandu’s hospitals, which are only just coming out of a deadly second wave. Out of the countries neighboring India—where the virus has fully taken hold—Nepal has the highest rates of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, by the post-monsoon fall, tour companies expect Base Camp to be thriving once more—with, hopefully, more women than ever tackling the ascent to 17,594 feet (5,364 meters) altitude.
Half the women who have ever summited Everest did so in the past decade, and women break world records here almost every season. In 2019, Khumalo became the first Black African woman to summit Everest; Nima Jangmu Sherpa became the only woman in the world to climb Nepal’s three highest peaks in 2018. Female Sherpas are finally starting to have their contribution recognized, too: Lhakpa Sherpa, who now lives in Connecticut, was the first Nepalese woman to reach the summit and holds the record for the most summit attempts by a woman (she’s hoping to go for her 10th attempt this year). Female-only treks are part of a bigger picture, one that shows how visibility for women on and off the mountain goes hand in hand.
“In [this] macho climbing culture there’s a lot of change, and it’s really exciting,” says Danenberg. “Young women, including women of color, are bringing their values into climbing and demanding that things are different. It grows exponentially once it’s started. Mountaineering is kind of lagging behind, but the industry is starting to respond.”